Three sisters known as The Misses Lefroy’ donated the majority of the Franklin relics held by the Polar Museum. How the Misses Lefroy came to have so many Franklin relics is itself a tragic story; a polar love triangle caught up in the drama and devastating loss of the last Franklin voyage. The three Lefroy sisters, Jessie, from Winchester and Louie and M. Isabel (Mary-Isabella), who lived together in Bentworth, Hants, were the daughters of George Benjamin Austen Lefroy, a grand nephew of Jane Austen, and the great nieces of Franklin through their mother Emma Cracroft. Franklin had a direct heir in Eleanor Isabella Franklin, the daughter from his first marriage to Eleanor Porden. However, when Lady Jane Franklin launched her quest to search for the lost expedition, Eleanor Isabella’s rights to inherit were waived to fund her stepmother’s campaign to mobilise public feeling and Admiralty support. Central to Jane’s campaign was the transformation of detritus from the Franklin expedition recovered by the search parties into hallowed relics through engravings and great public exhibitions. Eleanor Isabella would have nothing to do with it.
In fact the Franklin relics passed to the Misses Lefroy from their maiden aunt, Sophia (Sophy) Cracroft, from whom they inherited. Sophy Cracroft was Franklin’s eldest niece, Jane Franklin’s companion from her marriage to the polar explorer in 1836, and aide-de-cape from the launch of Lady Jane’s campaign until her death in 1875. This blog post is concerned with the polar love triangle in the grand tragedy of the Franklin expedition because of its direct significance for Sophy’s spinsterhood, and so the inheritance of the Misses Lefroy.
Sophy Cracroft was born in 1816, the eldest daughter of Isabella Franklin and Thomas Cracroft and niece of the Arctic explorer, John Franklin. In 1836, she accompanied Franklin, his second wife, Jane, and his daughter from his first marriage, Eleanor, to Van Diemen’s Land [Tasmania] after Franklin had accepted the post of lieutenant governor. It was four years later, while in Tasmania that Sophy, (age 24), and Eleanor (age 16) would meet the romantic interests that would dominate their future lives. Around the time of his 24th birthday, in March 1840, John Philip Gell came to stay with the Franklins. He was an Anglican clergyman from Derbyshire, recently graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge; and came to Van Diemen’s Land with the strongest recommendation from educator and historian Thomas Arnold to be head of the first institution of higher education under Franklin’s governance. He became an immediate friend of the family, and nine years on, following his return to England, Gell joined the family proper as Eleanor’s husband. In August 1840, just a few months on from Gell’s arrival at the Franklins, there was a more dramatic disruption to Van Diemen’s Land society life, in the arrival of two ships, the “Erebus” and the “Terror”, with naval officers Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier as Captain of the latter and James Clark Ross in overall command.
In 1839 the British government, under pressure from the Royal Society and the British Academy, had decided to send an expedition to the Antarctic for Scientific and Geographical research. The two ships, Erebus and Terror, left Moorgate Road on the 30 September 1839 and sailed south, landing at Hobart Town, in the summer of 1840 where they were hospitably received by Sir John Franklin, Lt. Governor of Tasmania, prompting a whirlwind of balls and celebrations. On their return from Antarctica in 1841 the fancy dress ball held aboard the ships to thank the Franklins was the event of the year for Hobart Town. To host the 350 guests, the Erebus and Terror were lashed together draped in red baize and dripping with chandeliers and flowers. More than 250 mirrors were arranged on the sides of the vessels to reflect the flickering candlelight; as the dazzled visitors approached the floating ballroom, the 51st Regiment of the Hobart Town Quadrille Band charmed them along a gangway made from a line of boats decked with flags and the floral emblem of the isle. The biggest naval ball in Tasmanian colonial history, the whole event is still remembered as ‘the Glorious first of June’. With Sir John Franklin presiding in full dress uniform, Lady Jane and Sophia Cracroft by his side, the “Two Captains” were the object of every woman’s dance card. When, just days later, Erebus and Terror departed, Crozier was deeply in love with Sophia, and she with his gallant commander James Clark Ross well known as ‘the handsomest man in the Navy’.
Three years on, the Franklins and Sophia left Van Diemen’s Land, reaching Britain in June 1844, to find Crozier still love-struck and Ross a newly married man. When the Admiralty approved plans for an Arctic expedition in early 1845, it was said that it was Ross’s promise to his bride, Anne née Coulman, which prevented him from taking command. This at least was the public story, however the Erebus and Terror had undergone further transformations since they were decked out in drapes and mirrors; the vessels were now fitted with steam engines taken from London and Greenwich railway locomotives, and privately Ross’s dislike of steam navigation played a significant role. Though Crozier and Ross shared the title of two of the most experienced polar explorer of the day, a powerful lobby manoeuvred for Franklin and secured him command of the expedition with Crozier as his second, Captain of the Terror. Further, in an unusual move thought by some to have been motivated by prejudice against Crozier for being too poor, too Presbyterian and too Irish to be a proper gentleman, the selection of officers was given to his junior, James Fitzjames. In the final days before the expedition departed Crozier received a further blow that left him in a depressed state marked by Franklin and all his fellow officers – his latest rejection by Sophy, the last proposal he would make.
Just sixteen months later, on 12 September 1846, the Erebus and Terror became trapped in ice. The same two ships which five years before had formed a floating ballroom for young lovers became a prison for a slow death. When Sir John Franklin died on June 11, 1847, two years after the expedition’s departure, Crozier assumed leadership of the beleaguered mission, and when in April the following year the ships were abandoned, nine officers and fifteen men already dead, 105 souls set out under Crozier’s command for Back River (formerly Great Fish River). They marched south and then east, searching for food in a single group pulling several boat/sledges. The majority of the men died within two hundred miles of the original landing, dropping as they marched. Inuit witnesses reported a large camp at Terror Bay, with tents, graves, cannibalised bodies and a pile of skulls. Later, hauntingly, the Inuit encountered a small party in Washington Bay, headed east. The Inuit described seeing a white shape moving in the distance which at first they though was a bear but which proved to be a party of around forty white men (kabloona) dragging a boat on which a sail had been set. All the men were suffering from an advanced state of scurvy and the Inuit were convinced of signs of cannibalism. The Inuit testimony, vilified and denounced for generations, has subsequently been confirmed by the overwhelming physical evidence not least from the skeletal remains of the men found scattered along the coast or mainland. Though the evidence indicates all 129 were dead by the winter of 1848, American search expeditions of the 1850 and 60s caused a stir in Britain with ‘hobgoblin tales’ of a survivor, a great officer and excellent hunter so skilled that he shared food with the Inuit, thought to be Crozier.
Jane and Sophia first heard the rumours in October 1865. Since 1860 the two women had travelled all over the world, visiting Alaska, the United States, Hawaii, Canada, South America, China, Japan, India and Europe; with a royal welcome in America and the Canadas, In 1869 they returned to the United States to investigate the rumours and inspect the most recently recovered relics. It was only after these interviews that Jane and Sophia finally accepted the evidence of cannibalism. Sophia Cracroft never married, her journals, correspondence and papers are held by the Scott Polar Research Institute Archives, located just above the Polar Museum. Through her role as daughter to the childless Jane, Cracroft became heir to a polar reliquary, much of which passed to the Polar Museum through her nieces, the Misses Lefroy.